Michael Brenner Russia-Ukraine Ukraine

Last Tango in La-La Land

The West has been inhabiting a fanciful world that could exist only in our imaginations. The more that we have invested in that fantasy world, the harder we find it to exit and to make the adjustment – intellectual, emotional, behavioral. 

By Michael Brenner / Original to ScheerPost

Reality has a way of catching up to us. Sometimes it comes via a sudden shock -Sputnik or Tet. Sometimes it creeps up incrementally – as in Ukraine with each thousand round Russian artillery barrage and the steady rise of the ruble now 25% higher than at the onset of the crisis. Dim the lights, the party’s almost over. But that is not the end of the affair. Whatever the exact outcomes, there is no going back to the status quo ante – the world, especially Europe, has changed in fundamental respects. Moreover, it has changed in ways diametrically opposite to what was desired and anticipated. The West has been inhabiting a fanciful world that could exist only in our imaginations. Many remain stranded in that self-deluded mirage. The more that we have invested in that fantasy world, the harder we find it to exit and to make the adjustment – intellectual, emotional, behavioral. 

An assessment of where we are, where we might go and the implications over time of the reactions of other parties is a singularly complex undertaking. For it requires not just specification of time frames, but also the varying definitions of national interest and strategic objective which government leaders might use as reference marks.  The number of permutations created by the array of players involved, and the low confidence margins associated with forecasts of how each will act at key decision points down the road, exacerbate the already daunting challenge. Before one even contemplates embarking on such a task, there are a few crucial considerations to bear in mind. 

First, the people who count at the head of governments are not pure thinking machines. Far from it. With the possible exception of Vladimir Putin (and his senior associates), they are persons of narrow intelligence, of limited experience in high stakes games of power politics, who navigate by simplistic, outdated and parochial cognitive maps of the world. Their perspectives approximate montages composed of bits of ideology/bits of visceral emotion/bits of remembered but inappropriate precedents/ bits of massaged public opinion data/ odds-and-ends plucked from NYT op-ed pieces. In addition, let’s remind ourselves that policy-formation and decision-making are group processes – especially in Washington and Brussels – encumbered by their own collective dynamics.  Finally, in Western capitals governments operate in dual currencies: policy effectiveness and electoral politics.  

Consequently, there are two powerful, in-built tendencies that inflect the choices made: 1) inertial extension of existing attitudes and approaches; and 2) avoidance wherever possible of endangering a hard-won, often tenuous, consensus on a lowest common denominator basis.  One thing we know with certainty: no fundamental change in thinking or action can occur without determination and decisiveness at the top. 

Necessity is the mother of invention – or so it is said. However, grasping what is ‘necessary’ can be a very slippery business. An actual recasting of how one views a problematic situation normally is a last resort. Experience and history tell us that, as do behavioral experiments. The psychology of perceived necessity is complex. Adversity or threat in and of itself does not trigger improvisation. Even the survival instinct does not always spark innovation. Denial, then avoidance, are normally the first, sequential reactions when facing adversity in trying to reach an objective or to satisfy a recognized interest. A strong bias favors the reiteration of a standard repertoire of responses. True innovation tends to occur only in extremis; and even then behavioral change is more likely to begin with minor adjustments of established thinking and behavior at the margins rather than modification of core beliefs and patterns of action. 

Those truths underscore the American dilemma as the Ukraine venture turns sour on the battlefield and your enemy is faring far better than expected while your friends and allies are faring far worse. Russia has blunted everything we have thrown out them – to the shock of Western planners. Every assumption underpinning their scorched earth assault on the Russian economy has proven mistaken. A dismal record of analytical error even by CIA and think tank standards. Off-the-charts forecasts on the country’s economy, and the global impact of sanctions, crippled Washington’s plan from the outset. Tactical initiatives of a military nature have proven equally futile; another 1,000 vintage Javelins with dead battery packs will not rescue the Ukrainian army in the Donbass. 

 So, you are stuck with the albatross of a truncated, bankrupt Ukraine hung around your neck. There is nothing that you can do to cancel these givens – except a direct, perhaps suicidal test of force with Russia. Or, perhaps, a retaliatory challenge elsewhere. The latter is not readily available – for geographic reasons and because the West already has expended its arsenal of economic and political weaponry. Over the past year, the U.S. attempted to foment Maiden style regime changes in Belarus and Kazakhstan.  Both were foiled. The latter was with the connivance of Turkiye which deployed a contingent of bashi bazouks from the stock of Syrian jihadis it keeps on call in Idlib (to be deployed as Erdogan did more successfully in Libya and Azerbaijan).  

There remains one conceivable sensitive target: Syria. There, the Israelis have become increasingly audacious in goading the Russians by airstrikes against Syrian infrastructure as well as military facilities. Now, we see signs that Moscow’s tolerance is wearing thin, suggesting that further provocations could spark retaliation which Washington then could exploit to ratchet up tensions. To what avail? Not obvious – unless the ultras in the Biden administration are looking for the kind of direct confrontation that they’ve avoided in Ukraine, until now. 

 The implication is that the denial option and the incremental adjustment option are foreclosed. Serious rethinking is in order – logically speaking. 

The most worrisome scenario sees the frustration and anger and anxiety building in Washington to the point where it encourages a reckless impulse to demonstrate American prowess. That could take the form of an attack on Iran in the company of Israel and Saudi Arabia – the regions new odd couple. Another, even grimmer prospect would be a contrived test of wills with China. Already we see growing evidence of that in the bellicose rhetoric of American leaders from Joe Biden on down. One may be inclined to dismiss it as empty chest-thumping and muscle flexing. Shadow boxing before a life-size picture of an upcoming opponent – and then sending him a video tape of your workout.. However, there are influential people in the administration who are prepared to pick a fight with Beijing and to let the chips fall where they may.  

The likely American reaction to loss in Ukraine is less dramatic. A ‘sufficing’ policy would aim to encapsulate the entire affair. As best you can, forget about it and bury it diplomatically. The United States has gotten very good at that sort of thing: consider Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria et al. Let the Europeans pay for the country’s maintenance and partial reconstruction. Writing checks is just about the only thing that Brussels has a talent for. Indeed, just a few days ago EU Commission President Ursala von der Leyen announced in Kiev the readiness of Brussels to accept Ukraine’s petition to be recognized as a ‘candidate’ for membership in the Union itself. 

 In a wider compass, Washington could bank its modest winnings. The Europeans are now united in their servitude and obedience to Washington. That spares them the dreaded prospect of actually standing up – and standing together – to assume their proper responsibilities in the world. Furthermore, any disposition to welcome Russia into a common European space is dead. That applies to economic dealings, including critical natural resource trade, as well as politically. Russia has been severed from Europe definitively for decades if not generations. If that leads to a less economically robust industrial Europe, so be it – that’s their problem. The American economy, too, may suffer some collateral damage. It will get a boost, though, from privileged access to Europe’s energy markets and the weakening of a competitor in goods and services.  The serious, systemic threat to the American economy looms down the road. Washington’s radical weaponizing of the mechanisms for managing international finance has accelerated the move away from dollar supremacy. A  markedly diminished role for the dollar as the world’s principal transaction and reserve currency will erode the United States’ “exorbitant privilege” of running a deficit/debt economy without constraint.

Admittedly, on the other side of the balance scale, a confident, intact Russia will find its economic and political future pointed Eastwards. The already deeply entrenched Sino-Russian partnership is the key geo-strategic development of the 21st century. That hardly should have come as a surprise; after all, just about all American actions in regard to both powers over the past 15 years has led inexorably to that outcome. That includes, of course, the blunder of trying to use a Ukraine crisis as the lever to bring down Putin, and Russia with him. 

Whatever trajectory the contest between the West and the Sino-Soviet bloc takes, it now will demand ever greater imagination and skill to manage that contest without tempting fate than it would have had the United States been inclined to pursue a more constructive course. One can argue that the historic choice that America has made by deciding to follow the Wolfowitz Testament as a user’s guide to strategy in the 21st century has been made for reasons lodged deep in the country’s psyche more than those that are the product of reasoned deliberation. Collective American self-esteem, its belief in being Destiny’s child, the ordained number 1 in the world, has been our society’s foundation stone. We have not matured beyond that magical dependence on myth and legend – to our, and the world’s, misfortune. 

Michael Brenner

Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh; a Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, SAIS-Johns Hopkins (Washington, D.C.), contributor to research and consulting projects on Euro-American security and economic issues. Brenner publishes and teaches in the fields of American foreign policy, Euro-American relations, and the European Union. He is the recipient of grants from the Ford Foundation, Carnegie Endowment For International Peace, United States Information Service, European Union Commission, NATO, and the Exxon Education Foundation.

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20 comments

  1. From the article, a very astute analysis, in my view:

    “Over the past year, the U.S. attempted to foment Maiden style regime changes in Belarus and Kazakhstan. Both were foiled.”

    A clue to the US overall strategy.

    To attack and drive two global adversaries like Russia and China together at first glance seems irrational, stupid.

    Kissinger’s technique was wedge-driving.

    Here’s what I think is going on.

    The US has realized that the prospect of a Eurasian continent that blocks it out and starts to implement the Belt and Road and International North-South Transport Corridor, cre-creating what the failed Pax Mongolica achieved —

    http://www.silk-road.com/artl/paxmongolica.shtml/

    . . . a direct link between Europe and China — is a mortal threat to its dominance. Yikes! East and West, the twain would meet! Panic in America, inheritor of the Britannic sea-based empire.

    A strong Russia is a bulwark against the larger strategy. Able to deflect the US in Central Asia, along with its Chinese partner.

    Putin is obviously not ideal for this role: he’s a reactionary who’s reduced what should a vibrant, advancing nation to hobbled petro-state status.

    But he’s what the real anti-imperialist forces have to work with, so Russia deserves and gets support.

    Returning Russia to Communist leadership would be ideal: that would make real alliance with China feasible, and Russia would switch its support for racist, white nationals groups here to Communist and socialist groups.

    Under Pax Mongolica, Europe was inseminated with ideas from “the Orient” that materially assisted its climb out of the Dark Ages during the Renaissance. A period of peace and mutual prosperity. Venice, — unlike London and Paris –was not built on the flesh, blood and bones of conquered peoples — but on contact, cultural cross-pollination and the opening of minds.

    A terrifying prospect for the American rulership class.

    On an atavistic as well as purely geopolitical/economic level — the US cannot abide this development.

    Among the gasp-producing facts: the Chinese are not white people.

    State Department Official on China Threat: For First Time U.S. Has ‘Great Power Competitor That Is Not Caucasian’
    https://www.newsweek.com/china-threat-state-department-race-caucasian-1413202

    This plays well to America’s racial paranoias , but has the opposite effect in much of the rest of the world outside WhiteLandia.

  2. The U$ regime accurately reflects what the majority of the population really want. That is why we remain in a permanent minority, and a tiny one at that.
    Whenever we write critically of the regime, its inequalities, its wars, its steady march to a fascistic imperialism we cannot fail to imply the simple truth, consumer society is utterly dependent on said regime and its practices.
    The majority understand this and will not give up n the dream of owning a 6000# redneck limousine and having the cheap gas to run it, o say nothing of all the other neat stuff so temptingly displayed at your local Wal-Mart.
    Thus change must come from state bankruptcy and failure, due to the rise of the Russo-Chinese Belt and Road in Eurasia, plus political and even armed revolt in impoverished states in the Global South, to whom this newcomer can offer better deals than can the West.

    1. @Chris Herz
      I fully agree. Leftists always want to let everyone but the rich off the hook. The rich are more responsible for these problems, and their evil system must be eliminated, but regular people have some responsibility also. The most important actions that individuals take are having kids (or not), and what they choose to buy. Voting with your pocketbook is more important than voting at the polls, and our society reflects people’s choices regarding the former.

    2. Astute.

      The failure of the USSR at its root was its inability to match the capitalist west in consumer goods and prosperity. This made it vulnerable to the capitalist west, as huge sums had to be diverted from the needs of the people to military measures.

      Lenin embarked on the New Economic Policy, which is essentially what China has resurrected: capitalism operated by the state in a containment vessel. If you’re a fan of Marxist ideology, Plekhanov was correct — you can’t skip stages.

      A prosperous USSR and “satellite”” nations would not have provided the capitalist west with the ability to lure people, to confuse them, to offer a “better life.”

      Stalin ended the program and enshrined a command economy — a large error, as it turned out. Segue to the idiotic Gorbachev and where we are now.

      As the Chinese comrades did, the USSR would have needed to find a way to get the capitalists to trade with it and its allies.

      No problem, as Lenin noted, they would have happily sold the USSR the rope hang them.

  3. Re Michael Brenner’s “Last Tango in La-La Land,” the question he poses, evidently rhetorically, has to do with “reality” and when, if ever, it will reappear. Many years ago, before Technology, John Kenneth Galbraith was asked a similar question: “What will it take for Americans to come to their senses?” The question took him by surprise, but he pondered: “Perhaps three concomitant catastrophes would shock Americans out of their lethargy, naivety, whatever else you choose to call it.” (The preceding is a paraphrase).
    As I said, that exchange was well before the dominance of technology, where everything is turned into a species of entertainment: Climate crisis, Chernobyl, Vietnam War, Ukraine-Russia, Our anticipated Civil War after the November congressional elections . . . I teach graduate students and I would calculate that at least 70% of them “read” reality as existing here, there or everywhere online, rather than existing in what formerly was considered “realtime,”or the”biosphere.” Realtime is, and may remain for the duration (seemingly coming up soon) image, or image of the image, Chinese boxes filled with simulacra.

    1. in 1950 Erich Fromm observed that amerikans” worshipped gadgets”. Geoffrey Gorer observed that amerikans “think through their computers”. Marxists Lasch and Sennet described amerikans as “inner directed narcissists in the 1970’s….Twenge/Campbell, konrath (the Narcissism Epidemic’ attribute growing amerikan narcissism , alienation to screens—amerikans now copulate w mobile phones, something not observed where I live…numerous thinkers describe amerikans as “over-conformist semi-automatons”. ‘amerikans poorly understand that individualism produces uniformity”. Philip Slater

      1. @george simmel
        And some famous Native said about the colonizers, “Their love of things is like a disease with them.” Clearly shows which culture and people were more evolved and superior, at least mentally and spiritually, which is what really counts.

    1. You didn’t like Last Tango in Paris? Brando improvised virtually all of his lines, many of which are sardonic or cruel, to be sure. Unless you simply loathe Brando, Maria Schneider or Bertolucci, perhaps you out to give it another viewing.

      1. Seriously?

        Shit, white crap rape scene: Paul rapes Jeanne using butter as an improvised lubricant. Bertolucci always maintained that the scene had been pre-arranged and that Schneider had given her consent.

        Oh, that uplifting crap!

  4. Professor, Enjoyed reading your snapshot into clear thinking.lt seems to be somewhat wasted in the present climate ,however its reassuring that some voices of reason still exists in this wilderness.
    I had to smile some months ago when Lavrov was dealing with some European diplomats (l think the British Foreign Minister had just finished addressing the Press in Lavrov’s presence)in a last ditch attempt to have reason apply & avoid the coming crisis. His reaction of disbelief to what he was hearing was evident by his facial expression, as he realised that he truly was attending a modern version of ” The Mad Hatters tea party”. His look of utter disbelief will be a lasting memory .l look forward to reading his memoirs at some future date.lt will make for a fascinating read.

    1. @Ed Wilson
      These people aren’t mad or stupid. They have different goals than they’re supposed to have. They want to maintain and expand the U.S. empire, and they want to steal other countries’ resources as much as possible. They don’t give a damn about peace or any other worthy things.

  5. “amerikans live in a thicket of illusions—they demand illusions about themselves”. Daniel Boorstin
    Richard Sennet, etc (The Hidden Injuries of Class” demonstrate that amerikans striving for money and success, live in the future, denying the present
    Simmel observed that Casanova knew himself better than nearly anyone precisely because he lived in the present
    “amerikans are entirely confused a bout themselves”. Simone de Beauvoir
    “amerikans bewilder Europeans”. Geoffrey Gorer

  6. So U.S. empire is OK, we just need better analysis of geopolitics and other leaders in order to do it better? What garbage!

  7. Reads as if intended for the us-empire-ok crowd, including a kissinger-the-sage reference.
    Maaaaaaainstream.
    But ultimately seems like the bong banter from long, hot adolescence summer nights, kicked up a grade level or two.

  8. Paul Wolfowitz’s objective to eliminate rivals, is perfectly fitting for an Empire. In history, All Empires will eventually collapse.
    The Roman Empire broke into Western and Eastern Holy Roman Empires, similarly the British Empire brought forth the Yankee Empire.
    Empires are inherently flawed as it needs too much conquests. Today’s great American Empire will be over come by self inflicted wounds, especially by drastic climate change that can not be solved due to its cultural nature.
    Summer just begun but already more than 100 F degrees are deadly thruout the globe. Examples : ltaly ‘s Po river has never been as low, France’ s wheat crop is threaten by heat, India, Pakistan is suffering extreme heat-while lacking water, California is worried of more wildfires, USA mid west is lacking sufficient water, on and on.
    The whole world is set to double spending on military – – – -especially Nato but the non western countries will not have enough food, energy, health care, clean water, or hope.
    Migration ( into Europe and North America) due to lack of clean water, food, heat, and rising oceans while be a far more dangerous issue than Ukrainian war.

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